(Reuters) - Roger Federer launches the defence of his Australian Open title on Monday looking to continue his recent purple patch of form against Slovakian Lukas Lacko.
The Swiss maestro must fight fire with fire at the year’s first grand slam in Melbourne as he attempts to deny Rafa Nadal securing a place among the pantheon of tennis greats.
In the women’s first round, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki faces Argentine Gisela Dulko with pressure mounting to justify her number one ranking by winning a maiden grand slam.
Too much of a gentleman to admit it publicly, Federer will be desperate to prevent Nadal from becoming the first man to hold all four slams at once since Rod Laver in 1969.
Federer’s bid to add to his record 16 grand slams was boosted by beating his nemesis to capture the 2010 season-ending World Tour Finals in London.
He also won in Doha earlier this month and will need to ride that form to deny Nadal, should the two reach the final.
Lacko can come out swinging at Rod Laver Arena but Federer, who is gunning for an unprecedented fifth Australian Open, will be expected to make short work of the world number 97.
Federer began the mind games in the build-up to the year’s first grand slam by saying Nadal was the man to beat as the Spaniard holds the other three major titles.
“He’s been the one who’s dominating the slams,” said the 29-year-old Federer when asked if his sharp form gave him the edge. “That clearly makes him the favourite.”
Wozniacki has yet to taste grand slam glory despite dethroning Serena Williams at the top of the women’s rankings last October.
The 20-year-old Dane insists she has nothing to prove but she will face intense pressure to validate her position as world number one at Melbourne Park.
“I won six tournaments last year,” said a defiant Wozniacki, who was dumped out of the Sydney International tournament in her first competitive match of the year and has lost to Dulko before.
“I don’t have anything to prove,” she added, although success in the four major tournaments is generally considered the acid test for greatness.
Maria Sharapova, who has been number one and won three grand slam singles titles, including the 2008 Australian Open, meets Thailand’s Tamarine Tanasugarn in the first round.
The Russian 16th seed, who has struggled with her game since shoulder surgery in late 2008, has promised to let rip, a cue for some ear-splitting decibels.
Italy’s Francesca Schiavone, the French Open champion and sixth seed, also plays on Monday and should have little trouble overcoming Spain’s Arantxa Parra Santonja.
World number three Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the 2008 champion, faces Spain’s Marcel Granollers, while last year’s surprise Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych, the sixth seed, faces Italy’s Marco Crugnola.